In the last part of this discussion on the servant-leader practices of corporate CEO’s, I introduced Robert Greenleaf’s “best test” of the servant-leader. Before I get into testing Todd Teske’s servant leadership claim, it is important to take a bit of a detour to delve into what is meant when Greenleaf suggested in his “best test” that the difference between leader-first and servant-first leaders is manifested “in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served”. I would also like to point out the other side of this, that the leader first would manifest themselves by revealing how their practices deny other people’s highest priority needs from being served. The critical part in this best test is understanding what is meant by “people’s highest priority needs”.
I am not aware of Greenleaf explaining in detail what he meant by “people’s highest priority needs”, perhaps he took it for granted that these needs were obvious. Greenleaf’s lack of explanation might play a role in why when many professors of servant leadership write or talk about their own takes on the path to servant leadership, they will often cite Greenleaf’s best test and then ignore the reference to serving peoples highest priority needs. At best, they tend to go off on a tangent about what they think the path to servant leadership is, leaving Greenleaf’s thoughts on the shelf.
Typically these tangents include suggestions to: wash people’s feet or follow other examples of some other religious, or corporate, or management consultant guru who will deepen the followers spiritual life; love the people they serve by performing acts of charity or martyrdom; become a better listener; hold more brainstorming type meetings; love their wife and children; refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in order to become a more enlightened leader; or simply follow other aspects of their unique outline or esoteric flow chart to becoming a servant leader. Although these tangents can lead to interesting reading, they mostly distract the reader (or listener) from really understanding what it means when people’s highest priority needs are satisfied and what the consequences are when they are not.
Another possible explanation for ignoring the call to empower people to meet their own high priority needs in the corporate world might be the impact that that sort of behavior would have on the corporation’s bottom-line ability to generate profit and grow, but then again maybe that is just more distracting conjecture on my part. Ignorance is not however an excuse for laziness when it comes to exercising Greenleaf’s “best test”, so it is worth some more effort to clarify what constitutes a high priority need. In order to get back on track, I will go off on my own tangent and provide an explanation that I believe is an effective model to understanding how best to serve people’s highest priority needs.
The best source I have found on defining human related needs comes from one of my favorite economic gurus, Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef. Max-Neef outlined what he believed constituted human needs in his book HUMAN SCALE DEVELOPMENT. Max-Neef’s ideas on human needs were a response to trying to address development problems in Latin America that he believed were related to economic policies imposed on it from its northern economic super-powered neighbors to the north. These policies did little to promote self-sufficiency of the Latin American people and instead indebted them as a means to ensure the growing wealth of the leadership of the super-powered neighbors. As a possible solution to what he termed “a world in crisis”, Max-Neef proposed what he called Human Scale Development, which focused on “satisfaction of fundamental human needs, on generation of growing levels of self-reliance, and on the construction of organic articulations of people with nature and technology, of global processes with local activity, of the personal with the social, of planning with autonomy”.
As an alternative to the pillaging and plundering that was typical of the economic system that dominated the world in order to increase the profits of the privileged, Max-Neef proposed an economic system designed to serve nine real human needs: Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Participation, Idleness, Creation, Identity, and Freedom. Unlike Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, there is no hierarchy in Max-Neef nine needs, with the satisfaction of each need just as important as all the others.
Each of these needs than has four attributes or ways in which the need needs to be satisfied: Being, Having, Doing, and Interacting. From this there can be a large range of options in how that need might be satisfied by what Max-Neef calls the satisfiers. For example, the Subsistence/Being need might be satisfied by the human who achieves physical, emotional, and mental health; Subsistence/Having by obtaining food, shelter, and work; Subsistence/Doing by working, feeding, procreating, clothing, resting, and sleeping. Max-Neef summarized this concept of human needs in what he called the Matrix of Human Needs and Satisfiers. The possible satisfiers of the human needs could be quite large in theory, with some being more effective than others in satisfying the need in question.
Satisfiers of the needs are categorized into one of five types:
Satisfiers of the needs are categorized into one of five types:
Synergic – satisfiers that in the process of satisfying one need also satisfy or help to satisfy other needs. Community gardens where people have access to land to grow their own food are an example of a synergic satisfier that satisfies multiple needs. Besides providing food that satisfies the Subsistence need to eat and to exercise the body; activities in the garden could also contribute to needs like Protection where users would know they could go to obtain food; Understanding where the gardeners could expand their knowledge of plants and how to grow them, Participation where gardeners could interact with other gardeners, Creation where gardeners could create beautiful gardens, and Freedom where gardeners would be free to grow whatever sorts of plants and food they desired.
Singular – satisfiers that satisfy only one need and remain neutral as far as serving other needs go. Welfare sorts of programs where those served are given coupons to buy food at certain markets in order to satisfy one aspect of the subsistence need to eat falls into this category.
Inhibiting – satisfiers that typically over satisfy one need and, in the process, seriously impair the possibility of satisfying other needs. A diet consisting of mostly junk food might satisfy the caloric intake requirements for the subsistence need, but in the process other nutritional requirements are ignored and non-nutritional additives to the junk food contribute to the unset of health consuming diseases like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure; which then consume the consumer, their resources, and their ability to participate in processes that would satisfy other more important needs.
Pseudo – satisfiers that stimulate a false sensation of satisfying a given need, and oftentimes pursuit of the pseudo-satisfaction prevents the real need from being satisfied. Contributions to parasitic charitable institutions would be an example of this where the contributor believes their monetary contribution is in part satisfying their own needs for Affection and Participation by showing they care by helping to pay for poor folks to get access to food, clothing or shelter to satisfy their Subsistence needs. In the end, much of the money ends up padding the pockets of the administrators of the acts of charity, and the other real humans are left with their needs mostly unmet.
Violators and Destructors – satisfiers mostly aimed at meeting the need for Protection, that when applied not only annihilate the possibility of satisfaction of the Protection need, but also render the satisfaction of other needs impossible. Use of pesticides and herbicides on factory farms as a way of Protecting access to Subsistence satisfiers of food not only kills the unwanted weeds and insect pests, it can kill or seriously impair the farmworkers, their neighbors, the other creatures in the environment, and the consumers of the poisoned food, thereby preventing those folks from satisfying other important needs.
For a more detailed explanation of Max-Neef’s ideas on human needs, refer to his books: ECONOMICS UNMASKED, HUMAN SCALE DEVELOPMENT, and REAL-LIFE ECONOMICS. In the book ECONOMICS UNMASKED, Max-Neef and coauthor Phillip B. Smith laid out how the growth obsessed economics of our corporate controlled world was poisoning the biosphere, exhausting the planet's natural resources, making the already rich and powerful more wealthy, and combined with growth in human population destroying the habitats of other species. This conclusion had a similar ring to what Greenleaf was experiencing and hoped to address in his SERVANT AS LEADER essay. Towards the end of the essay he pointed out that his goal at the time was to make changes to a society plagued by “the disposition to venture into immoral and senseless wars, destruction of the environment, poverty, alienation, discrimination, overpopulation” which existed because of “human failures”, and in particular failures in the dominate leaders of society.
It is my opinion, for whatever that is worth, that the problems Greenleaf was trying to address 50 years ago, have not gotten better, but exponentially worse. And it is because of this that I find it dangerous when people in leadership positions today try to cloak their own leader-first styles with the moniker of “servant leadership” while they ignore the impacts of their institutions on real people. As a possible route to avoiding this ignorant form of leadership, I propose that Greenleaf’s concept of the manifestation of servant leadership via focusing on “people's highest priority needs” and determining what the impact of the actions of leadership are on people becoming “more autonomous”, be combined with Max-Neef’s ideas on Human Scale Development focused on “satisfaction of fundamental human needs” and increasing people's autonomy. In the next part of this evaluation, I will attempt to apply this refined “best test” to CEO Todd Teske’s Briggs and Stratton Corporation.